"Are you ready?" Erza's question broke through his concentration.
Jellal blinked but found but he couldn't tear his eyes away from the twilight violet the cold woman had left in his palm the day before. A very large part of him wanted to toss the bloom and its somehow pristine, unbent petals into the milky pool water. But a smaller part of him felt wrong for even considering it. The childish and petulant version of himself left over from times long past folded his little arms over his chest and insisted that the cold woman had given him a present. Who was he to throw it away?
"Jellal?" This time Erza's voice came from directly in front of him. Jellal smiled up at her.
"Do you want to talk about that flower?" she asked slowly. Erza didn't point at the violet or even look directly at it. Instead, her eyes sought his.
Jellal blinked again and opened his mouth to speak but couldn't find any way to explain how he felt without frightening her.
"It's okay," Erza whispered. She reached for his hand and closed his fingers around the violet's petals. "You can keep your secret until you're ready to tell me. I think –" She paused for a long, painful moment. As the seconds ticked by Jellal almost blurted everything he'd seen in his brief vision just so she'd drag him all the way back to Crocus and have him committed for being absolutely insane. Finally she smiled. "I think this journey has been more traumatic for you than originally anticipated."
Erza leaned down and pressed a kiss to his forehead. "Once we're free of this horrible pass, we'll work on some of those artifacts Mystogan sent along. You need something to focus on besides the flora here."
She gazed at him and must've decided he wasn't stark raving mad enough to turn back because she took his empty hand and pulled him to his feet. On impulse, Jellal pulled her against his chest. Her arms circled him and clutched at the back of his shirt.
"Please don't scare me like that again," Erza breathed just loud enough for him to hear over the echo of the falls. "I thought you were dying or something worse."
"What's worse than dying?" he asked with a pathetic attempt at humor. His smile fell away when she pulled back and looked up at him with a sorrowful expression. "I'm sorry, Erza," he whispered. "I never meant to scare you."
"Let's just get out of here."
Erza glanced around the grotto once more for any stray belongings before squeezing his hand tightly. Once they were safely back on the narrow path of the pass, Jellal realized exactly how detached his mind had been the previous day and many of the days before it. The strange magic of the native violets and how they'd managed to deceive him so thoroughly despite his empty origin still perplexed him, but he felt their claws ease out of his flesh with every step toward the mouth of the pass.
The wind just beyond the opening that led back into the pass was brutal. It whipped at their bodies and wormed into every lazy buttonhole and forgotten flap of wool. Jellal, the wind having cleared his head of the remaining twilight cobwebs, closed his hand around Erza's elbow and pulled her back into the shelter of the pass.
"We need to secure everything on our persons before moving down the mountain."
She nodded and began peeling back her layers to refasten her clothing and cloak. The pass had been cold, yes, but the wind was mostly limited to brief gusts. Jellal wrapped his scarf around his neck and over his mouth before pulling up the hood of his cloak to protect his head. He then turned to assist Erza with the same. Her hair smelled of the milky pool water and he did his best to ignore it. Hopefully the village below would have a suitable bath. He wanted no loose threads of the twilight violet's magic following them around – save the one bloom he'd stuffed away in the inner most pocket of his clothing.
The path that squiggled its way back and forth across the long swaths of mountainside was thin but not as treacherous as the path they'd taken north from Arenaria. Jellal took the lead and he could feel Erza's eyes on his back watching him for anything out of the ordinary. He hated that she no longer trusted him completely but was also grateful that he was able to trust her.
Clouds hung in clusters around the body of the mountain and shrouded the landscape from their view for several hours. As the path slowly descended, Jellal finally had the first glimpse of his homeland in over two decades. Stella's mountains were somehow both craggier and more populated with plant life than anything he'd seen in Fiore. Perhaps if the winter hadn't frozen everything over, the rocky valley would be a magnificent array of greens and browns. Something in his stomach tightened. He didn't feel the relief he'd been expecting.
Soon, he told himself. Altair will feel different. It is your true home.
Jellal didn't spot the village until they'd trekked well below the tree line. Even the trees felt foreign to him. Their trunks were tall and almost spindly, but opened up to a poof of foliage at the top. He wished he could remember any part of his abdication with Cassia but could not. With a frustrated clench of his jaw, Jellal set the faded memories aside for the time being.
The village sat at the foot of a pointed crag and Jellal could see the path leading to it was just as roundabout as the trail down from the pass. He suspected the bulk of the promised half-day trip would be circumnavigating the trench between them and the plateau the village situated itself on. Nearly halfway up the slope of the plateau he could see the tiers of terrace plots and the intricate web of stone pathways between them. The nonsensical pattern of white, brown, and deep green plots that had been cleared for the winter flared out in step-like formations across the steep incline of the mountainside.
Erza's gloved hand slid into his once the path widened a bit and she took up a position beside him instead of behind. Together they curved around the trench and finally made it to the base of the plateau where the path split in two. One branch headed further down into the valley to lower – but still quite high compared to Fiore – elevations. The other stopped abruptly at one of the piled stone pathways. Jellal sighed tiredly.
"It's just one last leg for the day," Erza whispered in his ear before leaving a kiss on his cheek. Her lips were cold but the feel of them was comforting. "Come on."
The piled stone paths hadn't looked sturdy but Jellal found them steady. Hiking back upward sapped the last of his energy. He tried to appreciate the intricacies of the terrace farming but could not. His mind focused on bed and a bath. Perhaps he was still a spoiled, city boy assassin at heart – the hearty priest that tended his own garden for seven years had left him the moment he'd washed the road dirt away in Ultear's bath.
At the crest of the stone path a group of children waited for them with curious eyes and wide smiles.
"Did you come from the pass?" One asked, taking Erza's hand.
"Did you come from the interior?" Another prodded as he circled them.
"No, dummy!" A third child said, eyeing Erza and Jellal closely. "They're from over the border. Just look at their clothes."
"From Fiore?" The first child said, tugging at Erza's hand. "What's it like there? Is it summer?"
"No, it's winter there, too." Erza crouched in front of the little boy and smiled. "I think summer comes much earlier for us, though."
"You've got pretty hair," the boy whispered, pushing Erza's hood back.
"Hey, hey!" A familiar voice said from beyond their welcome committee. "Leave them alone! Don't you kids have stuff to do?"
"Aw, come on!" The third child, a girl, said with her hands on her hips. "We never get to see the good stuff!"
"Go on," the man who'd pulled Jellal from the milky pool in the grotto grunted. "Get back to the herd before they all wander off a cliff."
The children eventually cleared out but grumbled amongst themselves before disappearing around an outcropping of rock.
"Sorry about that," the man said, straightening his wool cap. "I'm glad you made it! I thought maybe you'd both fallen into the pool and drowned!"
Erza graced him with a soft laugh but Jellal only pursed his lips. "Not quite. We appreciate your offer of hospitality."
"It's not a problem. We're quite used to travelers even though they're few and far between now. My gran says there was a peak some years back but things are mostly quiet for now."
"Some years back?" Jellal pressed without thought.
"Yeah, you know, back when Altair was raided and the monarchy wiped out." The man's smile widened. "I'm Arturo, by the way."
"I'm Erza." Jellal felt her slide her arm through his as a cue.
"Fernandes is fine," he said quickly. Erza squeezed his arm but he offered no more information. His first name was unique – that much he remembered. Tossing it around wouldn't be wise until he was sure of how that might impact his stay in Stella.
"Well, welcome to Pictor!" Arturo spun around and motioned for them to follow. "Come this way and we'll get you a place to rest. The sun wastes no time up here in the mountains. We'll lose the light before the evening meal."
The village was a grouping of stone buildings that grew denser as they walked. Arturo explained that the reason for so many terraces of all types was the uneven elevation. As he went on about his gran's politics on gardening, Erza leaned into Jellal.
"Why didn't you give your first name?" she whispered.
"Because there is no one else with that name in all of Stella. I'll explain it later but until I'm certain my uncle doesn't have loose end assassins running around I would rather not endanger your life, Princess."
"You don't have to –"
"Her Majesty would have me drawn and quartered if harm were to come to you on my watch. Let me do what I need to do to protect you, Erza." Her frustrated sigh brought a smile to his lips – his first real smile in days.
"You will explain this to me when we are alone next," she hissed.
Arturo's grandmother was a tiny woman but not at all frail. She gripped Jellal's hand with a surprising strength and he tried not to wilt like a tulip under her gaze. Throughout the evening meal, and the back and forth chatter between Arturo and his younger siblings, she watched Jellal. There was no malice about her but her eyes were both stern and curious.
Erza was eventually shown to a women's bath and, after thanking Arturo once more for the hospitality, Jellal left the men's bath behind for the space that had been prepared for them. His robe was warm but he felt the chill of the old woman's gaze. She waited for him just outside the door of the stone building where he and Erza would sleep. Smoke curled from her pipe and she said nothing as he approached.
"Would you care to come inside?" he asked quietly. "I'm not the boy I used to be and know even the night air can have ears."
The old woman held out her hand and Jellal helped to pull her to her feet. She followed him into the guest quarters and immediately began to poke at the fire in the hearth.
"It's not right," she muttered just loud enough for him to hear.
"I'm not here to rock anyone's boat," Jellal said softly, prying the iron poker from her hand. "Let me do that, please." She sighed and moved away from the fire to a cushion opposite him on the floor.
"It is your right to roam the country as you please, Your Highness. I wasn't speaking of that, though." Her expression turned wistful. "I meant that it isn't right that we can only house you so meagerly."
"I have slept in worse."
"The people mourned your death, and then they mourned your loss. We have thought you lost for ever so long." When he sat beside her, she reached over to touch the runes on his face. "These are very old."
"Am I truly ancient now?" Jellal asked with a quiet laugh.
"No, you impertinent boy." Her tone was nothing but endearing. "I meant the runes. Someone has kept you safe with great care."
"I owe my life to the kindness of women."
"The one you've brought with you is quite curious. Who is she?"
"No one of consequence."
"You lie like a proper royal."
"Only to protect what is worth protecting."
The old woman's face turned sad. "Why have you returned? The monarchy is beyond repair. Our senate and counsel is sturdy enough but they argue over small things as men are wont to do."
"I promise I'm not here as a conqueror or anything sinister. I only wanted to see the stars before…" Jellal laughed softly and his eyes fell to his hands. "Well, before I made some choices that changed my identity once more."
"My grandson spoke of a man with an empty origin who got lost in the twilight."
"It's true," Jellal said with a sigh. "I can't puzzle that part out. Twilight violets feed on a mage's origin. Simple hallucinations can fool just about anyone but –" Jellal felt the creeping chill of the cold woman's touch. "I had no magic for the violets to feed from to create what I saw."
"How is it that you came to lose your magic? Ancient magic such as your family's is not easily lost. A benediction –"
"I didn't lose it," Jellal interrupted. "I traded it."
"What could be worth a price as high as that?"
"The lives of the people I love. And an end to the life of someone who cause me a great deal of pain and suffering."
She nodded and puffed on her pipe. The smoke had a sweet scent he didn't expect. "When playing games of life and death, the price is always steep. It takes one of quite a skill to empty a man's origin of benediction magic."
"As I said before, my life is owed to women that are somehow always cleverer than myself. One day I might shock the world and outsmart them all."
The old woman cackled and coughed. "You can try, but most men fail." She fell silent again for a long moment and watched the fire. "I'll leave you to your sleep but I think you ought to know that news from Fiore doesn't travel over the mountains with any degree of speed."
"I believe you will understand me when I say that certain pockets of the population might not know what your presence here means or what it might portend." She stood and hid her pipe away into the folds of her cloak. "Be careful, Your Highness."
"Please don't trouble yourself to call me that," Jellal whispered. "I'm not a prince of anything."
"Perhaps not, but allow an old woman her niceties." She left him alone in the room and he watched the fire flicker in the hearth. The way she'd called his magic a benediction stuck with him more than anything else. He thought maybe he should've asked for clarification.
"Did you get lost in another twilight?" Erza whispered into his hear. Jellal startled and blinked at her. He hadn't heard her come in. "Did I frighten you?"
"Not at all. I was just thinking."
"Maybe." Jellal stood and pressed his lips to the curve of Erza's neck. He was happy to find that she no longer smelled at all like the milky pool in the grotto. "Maybe not."
"Are you very tired? I was hoping you'd saved some energy to have a look at the things Mystogan sent."
"Should I worry that you've become fond of him? Will you leave me for my doppelgänger?" He smiled but Erza did not. She pursed her lips and shook her head.
"Your jokes will not distract me, Jellal. You need to work on your mastery of these objects and outside magic."
Jellal sighed and watched as she produced a few of the smaller objects from her requip space – including both the child's projection toy and the one that had him floating in the air for a brief moment.
"I'm afraid for you," she whispered quickly. "And not just because you got lost in the twilight violets. This land is unknown to both of us. There's dangers here I didn't conceive of and what if I can't protect you?"
"Erza, it is me who protects you."
"No, Jellal. You cannot even protect yourself from a tuft of flora. You have no magic and no weapons. We are no longer in Fiore where any bandit with half an eye for my hair can ransom the crown." Erza set aside her collection of magical artifacts and took his face in her hands. Her thumb brushed against the runes on his cheek and her expression broke his heart. "Here, it is you who is possibly in danger. I will do the protecting."
She kissed him and for a brief moment he thought he felt a wish stir in his heart.